South Beach Soaring

Quick.  Can you name the one NCAA Division I University that has a legitimate chance to put its basketball team in the Final 4, but didn’t field a team for 15 years?  If you guessed the University of Miami, you’d be correct.

Once – and perhaps in the future – a college football powerhouse, it is hoops that is putting Miami back on the map in the national picture. Just 30 years ago, that would not have been possible.  Miami shut down its basketball program at the end of the 1970 – 71 season for reasons that don’t appear to be clear.  Perhaps it was the expense, perhaps it was the fact that as an independent they had no place to play or perhaps they just didn’t care.  Whatever the reason however, it wasn’t like Miami basketball didn’t have its moments.  In the 1960s, the school turned out a pretty fair basketball player named Rick Barry, who until Steph Curry led the Golden State Warriors to last year’s NBA title, was the last person to do so as Golden State won an NBA Championship in 1978.  Some of my earliest memories were watching NBA basketball on CBS in the 1970s and wondering why the hell is that guy shooting free throws underhanded?  My coach doesn’t teach it that way.  I don’t know Rick Barry, but he did come to Roanoke for a charity golf tournament one time and those who interacted with him there told me that Rick Barry’s favorite subject was – Rick Barry.  I guess when you’re good you can get away with that.  Barry’s Miami teams were a combined 65-16 with three consecutive 20 win seasons.  Barry for his part led the nation in scoring at 37.4 points per game.

In 1985, Miami revived its basketball program probably in part due to the fact that the NCAA’s marquee event is the basketball tournament which dominates the sports world in the month of March.  To do so, they turned to a coach who may well go down as one of the most underrated to ever work the sidelines.  The now late Bill Foster had risen through the ranks from Shorter College to UNC-Charlotte to Clemson.  In six seasons at Miami, he took an expansion team from the ashes and posted a modest 78 – 71 record.  Foster then tried retirement and worked a little television for Raycom Sports.  He then came out of retirement to coach at Virgina Tech because as he told me in an interview one time “I just had too much time on my hands.” Foster led Tech to the 1995 NIT Championship, ironically the first year Miami played in the post-season in 31 years, also in the NIT.  Understand that Virginia Tech may win a conference title sometime and may play in the NCAA tournament and even win a couple of games, but Virginia Tech isn’t winning an NCAA Basketball Championship so the NIT – which Tech as won twice – is a big deal.  One of his assistants at Miami was Seth Greenberg who would go on to coach at Virginia Tech as well until he lost both a pissing match to the then athletic director and his job.  He now works at ESPN, and frankly he isn’t bad at television, but I don’t expect him to stay out of coaching much longer.

Since Foster “retired” at Miami, the school employed Leonard Hamilton (now at Florida State), Perry Clark (now an assistant at South Carolina), and Frank Haith as its head coach who went 129 – 101.  Haith beat the NCAA posse out of town to Missouri and then beat the NCAA posse out of Missouri to Tulsa, but he needs to understand that the NCAA has a really strong posse and he’d better not stop looking over his shoulder because he certainly appears to be a guy willing to at least “bend” a few rules.

What now makes Miami a legitimate final 4 threat is the current coach, yet another understated basketball lifer. I first heard the name Jim Larranaga as an assistant at the University of Virgina where he coached Ralph Sampson among others.  Larranaga came to U.Va. in 1979 from a spot as the head coach at American International.  He stayed at Virginia until 1986.  From 1986 to 1997 he coached at Bowling Green, then moved back to the Commonwealth of Virginia to coach George Mason from 1997 – 2011.  He famously took George Mason from an 11th seed to the Final 4 in 2006 part of 5 NCAA Tournament appearances from a league – the Colonial Athletic Association – that typically gets one team in the tournament.  He’s had just five losing seasons in 31 years as a head coach, but hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years.  Larranaga is largely overshadowed in a league where Jim Boeheim looks miserable all the time and is prone to various out-of-body experiences, Roy Williams talks about himself in the third person entirely too much, and Coach K while deserving credit for all those wins is constantly whining at the officials.  Since coming to Miami, he’s won the ACC’s regular season and tournament title in 2013 and now has a team ranked in the top 10 and a legitimate threat in the ACC to both an inconsistent North Carolina team, a Duke team that needs miracle shots to win games (and don’t tell me Grayson Allen didn’t travel because he took 7 steps), and a Virginia team that looks like it’s moving in the right direction but can you know that for sure?  One interesting thing to remember is that this year’s ACC Tournament is at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (that’s another story because it should never be held anywhere but Greensboro, N.C.), and that’s where George Mason advanced to the Final 4 by beating top ranked U-Conn in 2006.

Miami has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, but the school has invested in basketball with a multi-million dollar practice facility and the 7,972 seat Bank United Center on campus which opened in 2003.  Prior to that opening, the school shared space off campus with the Miami Heat at the Miami Arena.  I’m not saying that Miami is winning a National Title or getting to the Final 4, but come selection Sunday when the pairings come out look where they are and who they have to play because Miami could easily take its act from South Beach to Houston the first weekend in April.  When Miami was dominating on the football field in the late 80s and early 90s, hoops were an afterthought at the school and now that the school is struggling on the football field it’s basketball that’s keeping the Coral Gables campus in the spotlight.  Not bad for a university that once didn’t care.

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